Sunday, April 4, 1990

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Ezekiel 37:1-14
Luke 37:1-12

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, ne beneld the linen clothes laid by

themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24:12

In a way, it should come as no surprise that the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection do not agree

in detail. When something extraordinary happens, something that touches us to the heart, we are in no

mood to take notes on the event for the sake of posterity. Our emotions are churning, and our minds

are confused. We do not know what to make of things.

And it does indeed seem certain that something extraordinary happened. We must recall that the

disciples had become deeply attached to Jesus. He had become the meaning of their lives, and their

hope for the future. Suddenly, just when it had seemed that he was moving toward triumph, utter

disaster had struck. The matchless intimacy of the Last Supper had been followed by the

unthinkable--the betrayal, the trial, the crucifixion, the death, the burial. Anyone who doubts the

resurrection must explain what it was that so completely reversed the disciples' mood. What inspired

them to go out into a hostile world with such complete conviction? What empowered them to preach and

to heal? What enabled them to face death with such equamimity?

They had not figured out some intellectual explanation of the events. That could have done no more

than enable them to live with defeat. It could not have been one individual's private, inner

experience, then related to others. Paul had such an experience, and it seems that some of the

disciples never did believe him. No, something happened to them all, something they did not really

understand, but which was utterly and absolutely convincing.

We have no direct access to that experience itself. If Peter, who witnessed it, went away wondering

what had happened, we can only read the accounts and wonder for ourselves. But as the events affected

Peter because they touched issues central to his life, so the accounts can affect us as they touch

issues central to ours; and that is what I want a to talk about this morning. Whatever may have

changed over the centuries, we remain profoundly concerned with death and life.

Physical death is an absolute necessity. As the flowers and shrubs outdoors are coming to life again

after their winter's dormancy, they are nourished by the decaying substance of previous generations.

Our own bodies depend on plants and animals that were once alive. And perhaps more to the point, each

generation of humans must give way to the next, must make room, if that next generation is to assume

its full responsibility and maturity.

We live in confidence that physical death is not the end of the story. There is abundant evidence in

our theology that our individuality is primarily spiritual rather than physical, and that the death of

the body simply opens the door so that we begin living consciously the lives we are leading inwardly


On that level, we face the issues of life and death in a different form. Most simply put, being truly

alive spiritually is to be actively engaged with other people. It is to be emotionally sensitive to

their needs, mentally alert to what is going on, and energetic in our efforts to be of use. Spiritual

death is to become wrapped up in ourselves, grasping for whatever we want. It is to desensitize

ourselves to the feelings and needs of others, to rationalize everything in our own favor, and to try

to get the most from the world while contributing the least.

A central message of the Easter story--perhaps the central message, is precisely this, that spiritual

life is self-giving. The Lord's life among us was his gift of himself. To anyone who would accept, he

gave his love, his thought, his healing. Ultimately, he have his physical life, with no effort to

preserve it. Our theology tells us that this is essentially why he rose from the dead. Love is the

essence of life, and absolute love is absolute life.

We are not called to anything so dramatic, but we face the same issues every day. We are neither

wholly loving nor wholly selfish; and we regularly find ourselves at odds with ourselves. There is

something we want very much, perhaps something as simple as a few moments' peace and quiet, and there

is a duty insisting on attention.

Often, I think, we make things difficult for ourselves by misperceiving the situation. We see "what we

want" as originating wholly from our own desires, and we see the duty as wholly imposed from the

outside. The choice becomes a choice between "us and them," and there is a legitimacy to our own

needs. it may help to realize that this is only part of the truth. Yes, the duty arises from our

circumstances, but the call to duty comes from within ourselves. The feelings of responsibility are

our own. They are not imposed on us by others. And in similar fashion, there is an "outside" aspect to

our need for peace and quiet. We are affected by the world around us, and sometimes it does get to us.

When we find ourselves in such situations, then, it is not simply a question of whether we serve

ourselves or others. It is also a question of which part of ourselves we heed and nourish.

Negatively, do we deny ourselves rest which we may need, or do we take on feelings of guilt? It seems

clear that these are questions which no one else can answer for us.

It also seems clear that there is more involved than simply which choice we make. What perhaps matters

most is why we make the choice. We can rest in order to handle responsibility better or simply out of

self-indulgence or rebellion.. We can do our duty out of concern for others, or out of

self-righteousness. Here I find no easy answers, no infallible tests we can apply. It seems to be a

matter of how honest we can be with ourselves, and we can err as much toward self-condemnation as

toward self-justification. It may take a lifetime to sort things out, but a lifetime is precisely what

we have to work with. We do not become angels overnight, but a little at a time, in pieces we can


At the center of the whole process, there is a paradox. Our theology expresses it very simply, with

repeated statements that we are to shun evils "as if of ourselves," but with the recognition that it

is the Lord's power alone which is actually effective. This is the very same principle that makes A.

A. and the other twelve-step programs work. They require the realization that we are powerless to

resist the addiction, and then they require us to resist it, "one day at a time." There is a kind of

"giving up" that leads to transformation.

We might do well to recognize ourselves as addicted to our own egos. Like the alcoholic, we have our

sober times when we resolve to control our self-concern, and like the alcoholic we keep failing. We go

through cycles of repentance and efforts to reform on the one hand, efforts to solve the problem

through will power, and lapses into whatever particular form our self-concern takes.

These efforts are absolutely necessary. We cannot discover that we are powerless by reading it in a

book. We have to try. We have to give it our best shot. Nothing more surely short-circuits the process

than the hidden belief that we could succeed if we really put our minds to it. This lets us cherish

the illusion of competence without every putting it to the test. A. A. talks about "bottoming out,"

and urges people who live with alcoholics to let this happen.

All this may sound rather grim for an Easter message, but without it, Easter can only be superficial.

If the disciples could not have been transformed without the resurrection, it must be remembered that

there could have been no resurrection without the crucifixion. The depth of the disciples' despair was

the precise measure of their joy. Those individuals who rejoiced in the crucifixion found no joy in

the resurrection.

So in a sense, the Easter message is measured out to us according to our needs. The central message is

clear and simple. The gift the Lord would give us is the gift of spiritual life. He wants us to be at

peace with ourselves and with each other. He wants us to go to bed every night with a sense of

contentment, and to wake up every morning with anticipation. He wants us to appreciate and enjoy each

other. He wants us to know the beauty of a task well done, a word well spoken. He wants us to see the

beauty latent in all his creatures and all his creation. In short, he wants to resurrect us from our

"half-life," from any sense at all that life is a burden to be borne. He wants us to discover that

life is a joy to be lived.

He has not been content simply to tell us this; he has shown us. He has led a human life in

circumstances like our own. He heard all the messages we hear about looking out for number one. He has

saw all the subtle opportunities to compromise, to manipulate people to one's own advantage, to

rationalize or justify. He felt all the deceptive promises of reward that our world can hold out to


Through all this, he lived. He refused to be dulled, deadened by the bleakness of human egotism, in

himself or in others. Step by step, he became so alive that physical death itself had no power over

him. His whole purpose was to enable us to do the same in our own individual and limited ways. "These

things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." "If

you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments,

and abide in his love."

The Palestine of Jesus' time did not have computers or traffic jams, nuclear weapons or television.

It did have wars and oppression, slavery and greed;and above all, it did have life and death.

Whatever forms our circumstances may take, the central issues are constant. The promise still holds

that faithfulness will surely bring peace and joy. "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of

good cheer--I have overcome the world." Life is not just bodily processes, it is liveliness,

eagerness, engagement. It is what we feel when "life is worth living," and that is how the Lord wants

us to feel. "I am come," he said,"that they might have life, and that they might have it more



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